DURHAM — Billionaire David Murdock, the Dole Foods chairman whose vision and money turned an abandoned Kannapolis textile mill into a multimillion-dollar nutrition research campus, announced a donation of another $50 million in operating support for the venture.
The 90-year-old tycoon has already invested $600 million in the research campus and $131 million into an institute that bears his name. The $50 million gift announced Wednesday will also go to the David H. Murdock Research Institute.
Murdock rarely speaks publicly about his philanthropy, but on Wednesday, surrounded by scientists and university leaders, he took the podium at the Washington Duke Inn to talk about the Kannapolis campus that fosters collaboration by industry scientists and eight public and private universities, including Duke University, N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill. The work focuses on human health, nutrition and agriculture.
A man with a slew of honorary doctorates but only an eighth-grade formal education, Murdock described himself as a dyslexic who earned D-minuses in school. He started out as a mechanic, then after his Army service created a wildly successful business career.
A health-food devotee, Murdock built a fortune and has poured a big chunk of it into North Carolina to push the boundaries of nutrition science. On Wednesday, he said he likes associating with scientists but that he’s getting a little impatient.
“It’s very easy to spend money in scientific research, but I want to see the results,” Murdock said. “Sometimes I have felt the results were too slow in coming, so I’m pushing, pushing. Let’s make some major discoveries.”
That may come with what could be a landmark study by Duke University researchers looking for ways to personalize the treatment of disease. So far, 9,000 research subjects have been enrolled in the study, which is funded with a $35 million gift from Murdock.
A nutrition evangelist who eats only fruits, vegetables and seafood, Murdock believes food research will lead the world to better health.
“I’m a little bit older than most of the people in this room, but I’ll bet I am healthier than most of you,” he said, “because I’ve never been sick a day in my life in 30 years. It isn’t necessary to be sick. Now, there are genetic diseases that we cannot avoid, but I believe that we can avoid most of them if we have the knowledge of how to eat and what to eat.”
The donation comes at a critical time for the 350-acre Kannapolis research campus, university officials said. Federally funded research is declining, and current grants may take a hit from the self-imposed cuts known as sequestration.
Slowdown during recession
The venture saw a slowdown during the recession, and some corporate partners, such as PPD and Pepsi, backed away from commitments. Other big players, including General Mills, LabCorp and Monsanto, have joined the fledgling campus.
“It’s not just the funding of the campus that’s an issue,” said Dr. Robert Califf, vice chancellor for clinical and translational research at Duke. “The whole model is built on a concept that the core funding will lead to collaboration with federally funded projects and corporations. When the whole economy goes into a downturn, you not only lose your core funding, but people have more difficulty creating joint ventures in the research arena because there’s less total money to invest.”
In an era of constrained research funding, Califf said, “this is really going to give us leverage compared to the competition.”
The various partners are devoted to research, said Steven Lommel, interim president of the David H. Murdock Research Institute and assistant vice chancellor for research at NCSU.
“Everyone recognizes that we took a major economic hit worldwide,” Lommel said, “and the commitment to the campus has persevered.”
UNC President Tom Ross said he thinks back to the history of the Research Triangle Park, which took decades to develop.
“Then when I look at the research campus in Kannapolis I see how far it’s come in a relatively short period of time, actually, comparatively,” he said. “We’re already getting grants from the federal government; we already have partnerships with businesses.”
Ross said the Kannapolis research has the potential to “be a game changer for our state.”
Murdock said he’s constantly wooed by other universities and other states.
“Every time they say I want some money in another state, I sort of shrink back and say, ‘We only have money for North Carolina,’ ” he said.